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The Great Wall of the United States Add to ...

Stephen Harper has said that, if he is re-elected, he wants a "fresh start" with the new U.S. administration on dealing with the border, to see if ways can be found to reassure the Americans on security while easing restrictions that are causing costly delays for Canada.

John McCain, who made the unusual gesture of delivering a campaign speech in Ottawa in June, said he recognizes that the backups caused by new security measures "can pose a serious impediment to trade." Barack Obama has wanted nothing to do with Canada since a Canadian official embarrassed him by leaking one of his adviser's private reassurances over NAFTA, but he too is likely to be sympathetic to the Canadian concerns.

There is little reason, however, to think that dealing with border issues will be any easier after the elections in both countries; indeed, it is likely to become harder.

Canada and the United States long defined what it meant to have an open border. The orange cones that were placed at night across rural border crossings from Vermont to B.C. symbolized an extraordinary level of trust, rarely achieved by two neighbouring nations. That trust permitted ever deeper, and in some ways riskier, economic ties, from an automobile industry that grew up in virtual disregard of the border to a free-trade agreement that set rules since imitated on a global scale.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, we no longer live in a high-trust world. In the eyes of many Americans, 9/11 was a failure not of its foreign and military policies, or even of its intelligence agencies, but rather of its open borders. In seven years, the United States has doubled the number of its Border Patrol agents and tripled its enforcement expenditures and it is now deporting more than 250,000 illegal immigrants a year, all in the elusive quest for border security. On the Canadian border, it's known as "thickening"; on the Mexican border, it comes closer to warfare.

In the months after 9/11, some in the Bush administration turned to Canada in the hopes of building what they called "the border of the future" - one that would be open to trade and tourism but impervious to terrorists, drug smugglers and illegal immigrants. The virtual shutdown of the border after the terrorist attacks had been disastrous for the auto industry and the regions that relied on it, and both Ottawa and Washington were determined to prevent anything similar in the future. Tom Ridge, the White House homeland-security czar, had grown up on the shores of Lake Ontario and, as a former Pennsylvania governor, he understood the value of trade with Canada.

The result was the 2001 Smart Border accords, a laundry list of measures that was a remarkably cool-headed, sophisticated response to the trauma of 9/11. Its architects on both sides of the border believed two seemingly contradictory things: that the safeguards against terrorists crossing the border had to be maximized, but that barriers to legitimate cross-border traffic must be minimized for the prosperity of both countries. The way to do so was to "manage risk." By using modern information technologies and co-operating closely, the two governments would be better armed to recognize threats to security. Low-risk traffic - the commercial truck filled with auto parts or the nurse crossing daily from Windsor to Detroit - would be sped through, saving precious inspection resources that could instead be devoted to more suspicious targets.

SQUARING THE CIRCLE

That model was, and remains, the only way to square the circle of security and commerce, but the Smart Border Declaration has never quite delivered on its promise. There are many reasons why; most have to do with lack of trust. One promising idea, for instance, was to begin moving inspection facilities away from the bridges and other chokepoints. NEXUS and FAST lanes are a fine thing, but not if the backups are so long that preferred travellers must wait in line just to reach them. Ottawa had offered land inside Canada for U.S. "preclearance" facilities. But after more than two years, negotiations fell apart last year, although the Harper government was willing to take the politically risky step of allowing U.S. Customs inspectors to carry guns on Canadian soil. Washington, though, wanted its agents to have full powers under U.S. law to take fingerprints and make arrests inside Canada, a concession no sovereign country could offer. So we are left with the crowded bridges.

The new U.S. identification requirements under the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative make considerable sense from a security perspective. It's hard to manage risk if you're not sure that someone crossing the border is who he says he is. But Canada's concerns over the implementation of WHTI have largely been ignored. And more is coming; the Department of Homeland Security is moving ahead to implement a law that will not only require Canadians and others to identify themselves every time they enter the United States, but every time they leave, too. The hope is that by embedding fingerprints and other personal data in remotely readable travel documents, these new security mandates will produce only minimal additional delays, but the technological complexities are immense. The only silver lining in the recession that is now likely to hit both countries is that cross-border traffic will fall further, allowing border inspectors some breathing room to work the bugs out of these new systems.

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